Pete Docter isn’t exactly a prolific director; before his current film, Up, his last project was 2001’s Monsters, Inc. But as one of the first animators at Pixar, he’s spent the past 15 contributing to the studio’s uniformly excellent projects, helping script the Toy Story films, storyboarding A Bug’s Life, tackling voice work on The Incredibles, and working on the story for Wall-E. He’s spent the last four years working on Up, the story of a cranky, geriatric widower who escapes his humdrum life by using thousands of balloons to fly his house to South America, unfortunately with an inadvertent stowaway. Docter recently sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss the culture and success of Pixar, why caricature makes animation, and all the things that make Pixar’s filmmakers worry themselves sick.
The A.V. Club: How did Up first get started?
Pete Docter: The idea came from the idea of escaping the world, actually. For me, there’s definitely days where I feel like I’ve been overwhelmed by people, and I need to get away. So Bob Peterson, who is the lead writer and co-director, he and I were just sitting in a room thinking of ideas. And we were experimenting with this visual idea of a guy in floating house, and it just seemed really intriguing.
AVC: Wall-E also started from a visual, according to Andrew Stanton: the thought of a lonely robot still doing its job after 700 years. How do you go from an image to a full story?
PD: It’s largely just asking questions and answering them. “Who is it in the house? Why is he floating? Where is he going? What led him to this? Why is he the way he is?” It was similar on Wall-E. Developing the first treatment for that, “How did this little robot end up—” And of course, the answers are wide and varied, and you try a lot of different things. Some of them end up working, and a lot of them don’t.
AVC: How late in the process do you continue tweaking the story? Is it set in stone before you start animating it?
PD: Ideally, it’s set in stone. But the truth is—and every film’s different—basically the way we work is, we divide the film up into sequences, roughly 30 of them. And the ones we feel are tent-poles, holding the whole thing up, those go in first, and we start animating those. Hopefully, everything else starts to come along. It’s weird—on almost every film I’ve worked on, the first sequence we storyboard ends up being the first sequence that goes into animation, and ends up being almost shot-for-shot the same. In Toy Story, it was the Army-man sequence, which Joe Ranft mostly boarded, of these guys sneaking out and rappelling down to spy on the birthday party. It was almost shot-for-shot the way he boarded it. Same with this one. We had Peter Sohn, this really great story artist who’s doing the short film that’s gonna be attached on this one—he boarded the sequence with Carl where the nurses pull up and knock on his door, and he says “Just give me a moment,” and then he floats his house off into the sky. We had these poetic images of him floating past stores and windows, and that is almost shot-for-shot. Other sequences, we reworked 40, 50 times, it’s crazy. But you do what you have to do to get it right.
AVC: What happens if you change a sequence and then wind up having to alter one of your tent-poles?
PD: You try to make it so you don’t have to go back. Once it’s in animation, it becomes exponentially more expensive to change. Now, having said that, there are definitely films we’ve done where you just have to make changes. It’s all about a cohesive, strong story, so you do whatever what you have to do. On this film, I think we cut maybe two or three scenes, and we fixed pretty radically another dozen or two. But other than that, it was pretty locked by the time we got into animation.
AVC: You’ve said in interviews that with every film you work on, you do an exercise where you figure out how you’d tell the story if dialogue wasn’t an option at all. Is that done for all Pixar films? How did that get started?
PD: Actually, it started with Wall-E back in ’96. There were like three of us working on it, and it just seemed like, “Whoa, this is really hard. How do you communicate a lot of these deep ideas of love or betrayal or whatever, without dialogue?” And since we’re such visually driven folks, it was a really good exercise. We ended up using that on Monsters, and on this film. There’s no rule, though. The nice thing about Pixar is, there’s no really set way. Every time is different. We’re constantly experimenting. We’ve done a couple now where we almost approach it the opposite way, where we start with the dialogue. If we have a scene that’s really dialogue-driven, we’ll cut almost a radio show of dialogue, and then storyboard to that, set the visuals to it. It just depends on what’s driving the scene.
AVC: Pixar is a fairly collaborative place, where you’ve had your hands on a bunch of films that have been credited to a single director. Within that framework, are Pixar films more driven by consensus, or by one director’s decisions?
PD: That’s a good question, ’cause it befuddles people. It’s even hard to articulate sometimes. It’s a director-driven studio, but it’s a very collaborative process. So you have, for example, these check-in points, where every four months, I’ll show the film to Andrew [Stanton] and John Lasseter and Brad Bird and everybody else, a bunch of folks. And we’ll get these great comments. A lot of great ideas come out of those sessions. You can right away, sitting in the room, tell: “Oh, that didn’t work.” Or “Oh, I know now what I want to do with that.” Just seeing it with an audience, seeing it through their eyes, which is helpful, being so close to it. So then you go into the room and they’ll have all these great suggestions and ideas, and some of them are diametrically opposed to each other, or to mine. Ultimately, they all then go away, and I’m left holding this bucket of ideas, and the director’s the one who has decide, “Okay, which of these ideas do I agree with? Which are we gonna go for, which are we gonna put to the side?” So in the end, it’s a collaborative medium that’s steered kind of through one person, hopefully. And I think that way, you get a stronger statement on the screen.
AVC: Are there ever ego clashes? Given the caliber of the people involved, and the work they’ve done, and the fact that you’re all directors, is everyone okay with being contradicted or dismissed sometimes?
PD: As long as it gets better, then everybody wins. I think at the end of the day, people are certainly willing to let go of their ideas if they feel like what ended up on the screen is great.
AVC: What was your collaboration with Bob Peterson like?
PD: It was pretty key. He and I developed the idea together. We would sit in a room and kind of beat out the story beats, in terms of what happens. We talked deeply about the characters and what drives them. And then we’d split up the task of writing. He did most of the heavy lifting, the scenes that have a lot of the emotion and the real comedy. So we would beat through what was gonna happen, and then he’d just close the door and write, and come up with these off-the-wall, quirky ideas that are what make it great. And then I would take the pages, and usually the process—whether it’s him or me writing—it would be way too long, we’d have to cut it down. So we act as editor for each other. And then we would hand it to the story guys, led by Ronnie Del Carmen, and it would change again. Because they’d look at it and have their own ideas—“We could take this whole section and do it just in a shot, we could do it visually.” A lot of things. And then once it’s boarded, we put it into story-reel form, where we basically film all the drawings and put in our own dialogue and music and sound effects. And watching it in motion, it changes again. So it’s a constantly changing, shifting process to just try to find something that works. Something that’s emotional or funny, or whatever the scene needs to be.
AVC: You came to Pixar shortly after college.
PD: The day after graduation, actually.
AVC: That was the day you started, or the day you interviewed?
PD: That was when I started. I had interviewed before that.
AVC: Where else had you interviewed? Where did you want to work?
PD: It was a cool time to be—my mom chose a good time to have me born. There was a dark time in animation where nothing was going on, and then there was The Simpsons, and Disney was kind of up-and-coming again, there were all sorts of opportunities. And looking back, it’s the strangest decision to go up to this totally unknown company in northern California and do computer animation. I was expecting I would be at Disney or some place like that, doing hand-drawn, character-based animation. And instead, I went up north. I just had a good sense that John and everybody, they were making the films I wanted to make, which were really character-focused. At that time, I think all the shorts were without dialogue, which is neither here nor there, but it just seemed like it was focused on the movement and the expressions.
AVC: You worked on some of the early Luxo Jr. shorts, right?
PD: There were a couple of them that we made for Sesame Street that I worked on.
AVC: What was your involvement with those?
PD: We came up with some ideas. So I was there with Andrew, and I think Jeff Pidgeon, and we just—they gave us a big list of basic ideas they wanted to cover, and they just said “Go have fun with it,” and we did. It was another example of Pixar just doing it because we knew it was a cool, good thing to do. We did not make money; in fact, I think we lost money, making those. They were fun to work on. And having grown up on Sesame Street, the fact that we could possibly contribute to that was so cool.
AVC: Given how much the technology has changed between then and now, how has that changed how you personally make films?
PD: In some ways, it hasn’t changed at all. I really think John was pretty visionary in this way—he never once stopped something because it wasn’t technically possible. We didn’t even think about how we were gonna do something when we were working on the story. It was all just about the story. And then later, when we’d come to production, you’d come face to face with the reality of “Okay, how do we do this?” And usually then you’d have some creative solution to get around it. You can shoot around it, you can reconceive the specifics so you don’t have to do water-splashes, you can cover it some other way. But in terms of the way we work story-wise, that was laid down pretty early, and that’s what we’re kind of sticking to.
AVC: When Monsters, Inc. came out, everyone went gaga over Sulley’s hyper-detailed fur, talking about that almost as much as about the film. Were you aware beforehand that people would get so drawn into the visuals?
PD: I wasn’t sure whether people would talk about it. We wanted something that would sort of break—everything up to that point was really hard-edged and kind of cold and plastic-y. So with monsters, it just seemed like “Okay, you gotta have fur. You gotta have something that’s approachable and fuzzy and monster-y at the same time.” So we put a lot of development into that. It was scary at the beginning, because no one was convinced that we could do it. That’s not totally true; the technical guys who did it were pretty assured. But it had never been done, anyway. And it was something we were betting a lot on. So luckily, that paid off.
AVC: Are there things in Up you feel the same way about, that you’re aware of being particularly difficult, or that you think people will particularly notice?
PD: Well, one thing we really made conscious efforts toward was the idea of stylization, of pushing that more than we have in the past. If you measure us by our head scale, we’re seven heads tall, and Carl is three. It’s a very cartoon world. And that was grown out of the story itself—you have a movie where a house flies into the sky. So you have to kind of create a world where that’s believable within the context of the design. But it’s also where I think the strength of animation is, in the sense of caricature and simplicity. So we really tried to push that. I think it could go a lot further, but it was a good step for us.
AVC: Looking at CGI kids’ films right now, all of the characters are becoming more and more exaggerated, cartoony caricatures. Do you think there’s any particular reason for that?
PD: It’s fun. It’s fun to do. I don’t know whether it appeals to kids or not. To me, I love Bugs Bunny, which is pretty exaggerated, depending on who the director was. Some of them go really gaga, with eyes popping out. It just seems like cartoons and animation, that’s kind of playing to the strength of it. That sense of exaggeration is what it does. You want to break it away from—we always ask ourselves, “Is this worthy of being animated? Could we shoot this in live-action? Why are we doing it in animation?” That doesn’t mean it has to be cartoony and exaggerated in that sense, but we’re trying to take advantage of the medium.
AVC: Was this image of Carl in your head from the beginning, or did you experiment with a lot of different caricatures, where he might be really tall or skinny, or really round?
PD: We pretty much locked in early on, on this idea of a square. It just seemed to fit the character, emotionally. I drew this picture early on of this really grouchy guy with a squared-off head and this really sour expression, and he’s got all these colorful balloons. It just seemed like a really funny contrast, that this grouchy curmudgeon would sell happy-fun balloons. We played with that more and more, and once we hit on that square, we played that all the way through. Even Carl’s house is more or less square. We played a lot with the framing of Carl—once his wife passes away, he’s within these boxes, framed within squares. He’s trapped himself in this square, and it isn’t until later that he meets these other characters that are more round and life-giving and effervescent, like his wife was.
AVC: Is that why Russell is so spherical? He’s like a balloon himself.
PD: Exactly. We wanted him to be like a balloon. And Ellie, she’s not quite balloon-like, but she’s got similar shapes to her head that are more round. Even down to things like picture frames in the hallway—her frames are always in these round ovals, and his pictures are in squares. It’s just kind of who they are, and they balance each other as a couple. But without her, he’s stuck in his ways. It’s not until he gets to these other characters that he’s kind of balanced again.
AVC: Speaking of Ellie’s death… The first 10 minutes of the movie are brutal. You introduce this character and persuade the audience to love her, then fast-forward through her entire life. It’s a pretty hefty concept for kids, seeing this kid like themselves grow into an old lady and die. How are children taking it in your advance screenings?
PD: They seem to go with it. I was worried that it might be kind of beyond them in a way, but they seem to understand it. It shouldn’t surprise me, but kids are capable of a lot more than we give them credit for. The reason we did it was, we felt like we needed a strong emotional foundation on which to build all the goofy, funny stuff that happens later, as well as all the action and adventure. I think if you just had that without the emotional weight behind it, it would be light and fluffy and fun, but it wouldn’t be something you’d take home with you.
AVC: There are a million potential considerations with this movie that don’t have to do directly with the plot: How kids will react to the death. All the people who seem to want Pixar to fail, just because you haven’t yet, and who are predicting that Up will be Pixar’s first disappointment. The fact that the “old man befriends a young kid and they give each other a new life” thing is a cliché. Does all of this stuff play into your mind during the filmmaking process?
PD: Oh yeah. We worry ourselves sick with all the stuff. The main thing is—well, I’ll just say the thing that keeps me awake is the idea that we’re repeating ourselves, and that we’re playing into clichés. There’s only so many ideas in the world, and it’s all been done, but there are new ways of doing it, and that’s what we’re trying to hit on: “How can we do this idea in a new way that we’ve not seen before, and keep people guessing?” When people go to the theater, they don’t want to think “I know exactly what I’m gonna get,” and then they get it and then they walk out. I think you want to walk in going “I don’t really know what this is about,” and have the fun of discovering it. It’s painful for me as a director sometimes to have too much out there in the world, with clips and writings and the plot synopsis online. As a filmgoer, I love surprise. Anyway, that’s what we’re trying to preserve for people, and constantly try to reinvent what we’re doing, as much as we can.
AVC: The teaser trailers barely reveal anything about the movie, which leaves a lot of surprises, but later ads give a lot of things away, about Kevin and Dug, for instance. Did you have any say in how it was marketed or presented? Did you want people to have that “going in knowing nothing” experience?
PD: I like that. I would say to people, “Just come on for the journey, and don’t listen too much before you come in. Just come in and have the fun.” There’s a whole marketing group, they ask our opinion on stuff and ask us to weigh in on things, but it’s definitely not my forte. I’m just the one to make the movies, and then they figure out how to put the word out.
AVC: At what point was it decided that this one was going to be in 3D?
PD: I can’t remember specifically, but partway in. We’d developed the basic story already, and then John came and said “Hey, we’d love to do this in 3D.” So we set up a whole group of people, Bob Whitehill and his team—it was a pretty small group, but they did an extensive amount of research trying to figure out “What makes for great 3D? How do we give people a really cool experience? What are the things that work, what are the things that don’t, what are the things that cause eye strain…” Of course we want to reduce that. They kind of followed along using a lot of the same cues that we were using in lighting and shape language and things, they were trying to use depth for that same effect. For instance, after Ellie passes away, we purposely squished Carl to make his house and his whole experience very claustrophobic and small. We reduced space so you don’t have a lot of depth, made it kind of flat. And then when he takes off in the house, you go for contrast, and suddenly there’s more depth and space as he goes floating through the city. So hopefully it’s all in an effort to further the storytelling.
AVC: It’s been a long time since 3D was a regular part of film. Is Pixar just feeling through ways to use it on their own? Are there by this point experts in 3D talking about different ways to use it more as a storytelling medium as opposed to a gimmick?
PD: Yeah, there are people who have more or less experience. Of course you want to soak up as much of that as you can. I think of it a little bit like, my dad had a lot of the early stereophonic records, demo records, where it’s like “Bongos on the left, trumpets on the right!”, that sort of thing. And I think early 3D tends to be like that too, when it’s like [Theatrical voice.] “Loook, three-deeeee!”
AVC: They’re still doing that now. Monsters Vs. Aliens had somebody with a paddleball, popping a ball into the audience’s faces. Up seems to be lacking that kind of thing.
PD: That’s the goal with the 3D too. We’re not selling 3D. We’re showing you a story, and the 3D should be in support of that, not the opposite. Early on, we came up with this idea that the screen is more like a window, and you can look into that, but we don’t really have things coming out of the window. So you can look into the world, but we didn’t want things coming at you. So we were pretty subtle with that, more conservative. And like I say, I don’t want to pop people out of this experience. I want them to get lost in this world and kind of wake up an hour and a half later and go, “Wow, that was fantastic!” That’s the goal.
AVC: You’ve been a writer, you’ve been a director, you’ve contributed to other people’s films, you’ve done your own manual animation, you’ve done voice work on other Pixar films. Do you have a favorite role?
PD: Hmm. I like doing everything. That’s why I came to Pixar, as opposed to Disney or any other studio—it’s small. At the time I started, I was like the 10th person in the animation group, and we all had to do everything. That’s the way I like it, keeping it fresh. You don’t become an expert at any one thing—hopefully you become good at storytelling in general—but you also have the experience of everything being new, and it’s fun.
AVC: Do you have a favorite phase of production on a film?
PD: The most fun probably is the last couple months, where you know the film is turning out, people are liking it. We just finished up at Skywalker Ranch, where we did the sound design and the final mix. By that time, the quantity of intangible, unanswered questions is very small, and it feels safer. You’ve answered all the big questions. Looking back, though, maybe the early days are the most fun. They’re also the most nerve-racking, because you don’t know anything. You have no idea where the right answers are. You’re just wandering in the dark feeling for stuff, and once in a while it’s, “Oh, this feels like something we could use.” But then sometimes it turns out to be false, and you have to backtrack. It’s the most adventurous time, but ultimately more rewarding. Two extremes, I guess.
AVC: As somebody coming out of cel animation, how do you feel about how CGI has developed since those early days at Pixar?
PD: I have kind of mixed feelings about it. In some ways, I feel like the strength of animation is in its simplicity and caricature, and in reduction. It’s like an Al Hirschfeld caricature, where he’ll use like three lines, and he’ll capture the likeness of someone so strongly that it looks more like them than a photograph. I think animation has that same power of reduction. Computer animation has more detail, and I think the strength of that is in how it captures texture and lighting. Hopefully, it’s hyper-real; you can take out all the stuff that doesn’t contribute to the point you’re making. It’s gotten a lot better. Early on, on Toy Story, if you freeze-frame any frame, it’s evenly lit, and there’s equal detail everywhere. Now, they’ve honed the craft to the point where I think there’s a lot more focus and direction. Everybody at work is so talented, and over 10 films—this is Pixar’s 10th—every department has gotten so good at what they do. It’s really a joy to work with these amazing artists.
AVC: Even in the first Toy Story, people were talking about how much attention Pixar paid to textures, like the wood-grain texture on the rocking horse, and the bristles in its mane. On this film, it comes out in things like the glistening saliva on Dug’s tongue. How much of that is something you’re driving as the a director, vs. stuff that the art department or animation department is doing?
PD: Pretty much, I’m aware of everything. In part, that’s just the process. If you think of the frame as like a cake, a layer cake, any particular image you look at, I’ve had 18 different reviews. I’ve had lighting reviews, shading, the movement is a different review, any special effects, fur, cloth, hair. All these different reviews. So I’ve kind of seen everything, every separate element in that frame. It’s all so controllable, almost to an insane degree, that it’s a lot of work.
AVC: Speaking of “reviews,” do you pay attention to critical reviews or popular opinion on the Internet? We ask this question a lot of people who get mixed or bad reviews; we never ask it of people who are almost universally successful. Do you pay attention?
PD: Oh yeah. And of course you’ll get 99 great reviews and one sour one, and it’s that one that eats at me. Either you’re mad at them, or once in a while they’ll point out something and you agree, and you’re like, “Argh, why didn’t I see that before?” [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you still watch a lot of animation?
PD: I try to. The last year and a half, I haven’t really watched anything, because I’ve been working. But I try to, definitely.
AVC: Is there a spirit of competition at Pixar? Do you watch what DreamWorks or Disney or whoever is doing?
PD: Sure, yup. You look at “How did they approach this?” and what was successful and what wasn’t. Another part of it is like, “Okay, now that they’ve covered that really well, I want to stay away from that and make sure we’re not stepping on the same turf.” But yeah, I think it’s all good. I love especially when you see films that are really different and approach something in a really different way. Coraline, for example. It’s like, “Okay, that’s Henry Selick, that’s what he does, and he’s taken it to a great place. And it’s really different.” I love when there’s a great diversity of things. I’d love to see more of that.
AVC: What about when there isn’t? You’ve been at Pixar long enough to have been through it when DreamWorks put out Antz before A Bug’s Life, and A Shark’s Tale before Finding Nemo. Was there was a feeling that they were watching what you guys were doing, then trying to do it quicker and steal your thunder?
PD: I don’t know whether that’s just accident or what. Ultimately, like I say, I think it’s a much healthier environment when there is more diversity, instead of when things are the same. Even now that Disney and Pixar are joined, we try to look out for what’s going on at Disney and steer away from what they’re doing so we can find our own little plot of land. You know what I mean?
AVC: Speaking of Disney, at least one website is reporting that your next project is Monsters, Inc. 2. Can you comment on that?
PD: No, unfortunately. Not yet.
AVC: Disney has put pressure on Pixar from the beginning to do more sequels and spin-offs and direct-to-DVD projects. Now that Disney owns Pixar, is that pressure being brought to bear?
PD: John is really good at balancing all of that, and it was him that really pushed Toy Story 2. It wasn’t Disney or anybody else. He just loved those characters and that world, and wanted to do more with it. We’ve kind of followed that same mandate, that if it’s a director-driven studio, if the director is interested in taking it further, then we will. And if we find great stories there, then we’ll go. And if we don’t, then we won’t.
AVC: Then the obvious question is, do you personally want to do a Monsters, Inc. 2?
PD: We’ve talked about some ideas, and if we hit on something that really works, then it might be interesting.
AVC: Say that was completely off the table as an option. Would you have an idea of what you wanted to do next?
PD: Yeah, I do.
AVC: Your projects take three, four years at minimum. Do you have this sort of library of ideas planned out for what you in theory could be doing from now until 2050?
PD: Sometimes as you’re moving along and stuck in this one project, you come up with these other random ideas. I just file them away and once in a while hit them and borrow some energy from them. Working on Up, slogging through, sometimes I’d just feel like “Ugghh,” and then I’d find some other idea that’s kind of like, “Oh, that’s cool,” and kind of borrow energy from it. Some of those will live, and some of them won’t go anywhere. We’ll see what happens. But I don’t have any grand plan of “Here’s my next three movies in a row.” It’s more of where life takes me, and what is appealing.
AVC: As you said, you’ve been doing this since college. Are you comfortable solely working on huge, multi-year projects? Do you ever want to just dash off something quick and short instead of committing to that four-year effort?
PD: At this point, I’m used to it. I do get jealous of… Working with Tom Hanks, I remember he had done six or seven films in the time it took us just to do Toy Story, and that seems appealing. But on the other hand, I’m now used to this idea that it’s like making a movie in slow motion. Most of the time it works out fine, but sometimes I’ll say… In animation review, for example, I’ll make a comment, and then I’ll later go home and go, “You know what? That’s exactly wrong.” And I can still call them up, and without a ton of redoing, the animator can make that change. So it allows you to be a little more thoughtful and think through things, because the process is so slow. [Laughs.]
AVC: In one interview, you complained that you don’t get to do hands-on animation anymore. It seems like the way the industry works is that you get good at something, and then you get promoted until you aren’t doing it anymore. Would you be happy in a John Lasseter role, where you aren’t making movies so much as supervising five different guys making five different movies?
PD: Man, I look at the job that guy has, and I would fail miserably. [Laughs.] He’s amazing. Just all the different things he has to balance, and I don’t know how he fits it all in his head. It’s absolutely amazing. I do not want his job. [Laughs.]
AVC: Is there any other job you would want, in terms of going backward or forward?
PD: No. The only thing I can think of is… I actually got to animate on the end of Monsters. I did the last shot of that, and I did one shot in this one, toward the end where they’re sitting eating ice cream, although I needed a lot of help getting it done. I would love to somehow be able to construct a working environment where we needed less people and I could do a little more myself, either drawing or design or whatever. It just seems like the films become so massive that mainly my job is just going around and making sure everybody has the information they need to do their job. But the more I can do myself with my own hands, I love.
AVC: Do you feel a drive to challenge the programmers and animators, to push them to try visual effects they haven’t done before, just to push the envelope?
PD: Yeah, for sure. Artistically? Drive-wise, everybody at Pixar, they’re like wild stallions. They just want to go, right? We have to chase people out of the studio, because they’ll stay and work otherwise. [Laughs.] And they won’t tell us. They just want the films to be great. So it’s like one of our HR people was saying: It’s the opposite of most companies. Most companies, you’re figuring out how to build people up and motivate them and get them going, and this company, you’re trying to get people to have a life as well as doing their job. And that’s certainly true of the technical people as well. But everybody has their preconceived notion of how things should go, so it’s great when you can challenge that.
AVC: You said you really haven’t gotten out and seen movies yourself in the last year and a half because of work. Is that “not having a life” thing an issue for you too?
PD: It is, and it was worse on Monsters. And now on this one, it seemed like there was a little more balance. Plus, my wife kind of knew what to expect, so she did an amazing job of putting up with me while I wasn’t around, and making sure the kids were fed and off to school. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you bounce ideas off your kids? Do you show them scenes from the movie in progress? Have they seen the completed film yet?
PD: They have not. They saw it, I guess it was like 8 months ago. But they haven’t seen it finally done. So I’m excited for them to see it. On this one, I didn’t really, too much. Once in a while I’d come home and talk about an idea, but I didn’t really show them sequences so much. They’re like me, a little gut-level. They’re not really ones where I would show them a scene and they’d say, “Well you know, the problem with the…” They wouldn’t analyze it. I’d show them to see whether they’re entertained by it, or taken by it.
AVC: Do you derive ideas from them?
PD: Oh yeah, for sure. There’s a couple scenes in the film where Russell is like, [Whines.] “I don’t wanna walk anymore!” That could be a video from any one of our family hikes. [Laughs.]
AVC: How old are they at this point?
PD: Now they’re 12 and 10.
AVC: Is that a good age for this movie? Do you think they’re digesting it on the level you want them to?
PD: Yeah. The cool thing about what we try to do, anyway, is to have a lot of levels to the film, so a kid even 5, 6 years old could be entertained by it and find certain things they gravitate toward. In some of the test screenings, we found that teenage girls especially identified with the film, which surprised me. I wasn’t necessarily expecting that. But it’s great. And then hopefully, all the way up to grandparents will see things and look at things in a different way. That’s what we’re always trying to do, layer and stack things so there’s always something there.
AVC: What’s the test-screening culture like at Pixar? We hear a lot of complaints from directors about how studios just use test screenings to decide how to ruin a film by trying to please everyone. What does Pixar use them for?
PD: It’s a really amazing opportunity to show it to an audience. On this film, it was about 50 percent done when we screened it, so half animated, the other half on storyboards. It was really great, because you sit in the audience—and this is where it’s really valuable—try to be incognito, sit in the back and just feel the audience. Are they with it? Are they bored? Are they restless? And you can adjust. It’s like putting the show Off-Broadway before you go to the big time. And you can adjust things. Again, Pixar allows the director to do what he wants with that information. So it’s not forced on us. We do the sort of test marketing where they fill out surveys, but the main value in that is just sitting in the audience and feeling it with them and knowing what they’re responding to. And that’s a really cool thing, to be able to adjust after that.
AVC: What kind of things did you adjust based on the test screenings?
PD: There were a couple things. One of them that’s coming to mind is, there’s a bit in the middle of the film where we’ve just had a bunch of action, they’ve escaped from the cave, and they’re chased and all this, so you’re kind of sitting at the edge of your seat. And then we go to this really quiet scene where they’re walking through the jungle, and you can feel that people are like, “I want to get back to action.” So we made some adjustments—we cut it down, we put in a joke we had taken out earlier, and that made people like, “Okay, there’s still funny stuff, I’m still engaged.” And that kind of carries you through the more emotional, soft, intimate moment there until it picks up again. And that was necessary for the film, of course. But just the way we were telling it, we tailored.
AVC: Are there any other media you’d like to work in?
PD: I would love to do something someday with 2D hand-drawn animation. I like puppets a lot. I think The Muppet Show and those films are such great character-based stories. It would be fun to do something like that. It really depends on what the story is. I’ve written a couple things for myself that I thought that, just the way it turned out, was more of a live-action idea. But I don’t see myself doing that immediately, so who knows?
AVC: With John Lasseter taking over and reviving Disney’s 2D department, there might be more potential for Pixar employees to go make old-school cel-animation Disney movies.
PD: Yeah, there might be.
AVC: Would you be interested?
PD: Yeah, maybe, if the right idea comes along. It’d be fun. Although I don’t know that we would do that… I guess it’s possible we’d do it at Pixar, but it seems like they’d be better suited to do it at Disney. And so far, the companies have shared a lot of things, and we kind of check in on each other, but they’ve done a pretty good job of making Disney its own thing. They’re not trying to force our culture onto Disney, allowing them to grow their own.
AVC: Pixar’s built up such a huge cloud of good will over the years. Do you have a sense for what has made it so much more successful than all the other companies getting into animation?
PD: It’s probably a number of things. One of them that struck me early on… I started in ’90, and there were a small number of people, but the interview process was meeting with every single person, and it was like three days worth of interviews. And what that came down to was that they only hired people that were the right level of talent and that got along with everybody else. So they really were selective about who they hired. It’s a company run by filmmakers. John Lasseter directed all these great movies, and he’s the guy who’s now supervising all the rest of the movies, so it’s a really unique and rare combination of things where his philosophy is, “Always hire people smarter than you.” So there’s not that sense of ego, like “I have to be the big strong guy in the room.” It’s about trying to get people who are the best suited to do the job, coupled with the opportunity to make mistakes. We just schedule it in that we know that we’re going to mess up the movies along the way. It’s going to be bad for a long time until finally we get it right.